War veterans healing, growing by digging in dirt

At least 20-percent of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. KING 5's Eric Wilkinson with how digging in the dirt is helping some unearth a new outlook on life.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- War veterans aren't known for being exceedingly open about their feelings, but plant a few of them in a big glass building with a few hundred seedlings and you encounter a sort of "greenhouse effect."

"You gotta get dirt under your fingernails so it becomes therapeutic," chuckled Mike Hackett.

A group of war veterans working together to plant tomato sprouts in Whatcom County quickly becomes an impromptu counseling session through something called "Growing Veterans."

"I didn't realize it when I got out, but I really missed being around other veterans," said Tom Renteria.

Renteria did two tours in Iraq before an IED sent him home, unprepared to cope with life after war.

"I threw my uniform in the trash," he said. "I was ready to get my life started, but I did the opposite."

Then Tom discovered Growing Veterans, a Bellingham-based organization that teaches veterans to farm and garden.

It's about sharing experiences, planting seeds of recovery, and trusting that they will one day take root to produce something healthy and strong.

Mike Hackett served in Vietnam and now serves as a sort of elder statesman to the group.

"Instead of destroying things, we're growing things," said Hackett. "That's pretty basic, but it makes sense to me."

Marine Corps vet Chris Brown founded the group after his own difficult experience transitioning to civilian life. Veterans farm and garden with each other and also with members of the community to help bury stereotypes.

"We're showing people we're not damaged goods," he says. "We're assets to the community and working together we can do some pretty powerful stuff."

Growing Veterans provides produce to the Bellingham Food Bank as well as to farmers markets at the VA hospitals in Seattle and American lake.

At least 20% of American veterans suffer from PTSD. The condition can last for decades.

While it isn't a replacement for traditional therapy, Growing Veterans is a place where veterans can be with others who intimately understand what they've gone through. For Mike Hackett, it's a way to help nourish the souls of those starving for a way to fit in once again.

"I think there is always hope when you plant a seed and you watch a seedling grow," he said.


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